Monday, October 18, 2010

Claude and Camille: a Novel of Claude Monet by Stephanie Cowell

I wanted a bit more painterly insight from this book, but who can really know what went on in Claude Monet's mind as he painted? Claude and Camlle (Crown, 2010) by Stephanie Cowell sets out to tell the love story of Claude Monet and Camille Doncieux, an aristocratic woman who gave up her privileged life to be Monet's model, mistress and wife. Their love story is well worth imagining, full of dramatic setbacks, secrets, reversals of fortune and much passion. Since not much is truly known about Camille, Cowell invents a complex, insecure, beautiful woman who not even Monet could ever be sure he truly knew.

Friendships among the struggling artists who came to be known as the Impressionists are another strong point of the novel. Monet, Bazille, Pissaro and Renoir display their "one for all and all for one" allegiance to each other, sharing paint, food, wine and shelter. For a nonfiction portrait of this group, try The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins, 2006) by Sue Roe. When the West University Library Book Club read this last year, we also enjoyed a tour of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, tailored to tie in with the book, an experience I found especially enriching.

I have always been fascinated by Monet's methodology of repeatedly painting the same subjects such as the Cathedral of Rouen or his Giverny water lilies, seeing them anew with each change of hour or season. As a child I saw some of his water lily panels at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and experienced true awe at the scale and totality of his vision. The popularity of impressionism is unrivaled, and is sometimes dismissed or dissed for exactly that reason. But I can't get enough of the Impressionists! Monet led the pack with his serial treatment of subjects, and we forget how uncommon that was. So if you are at all an art history geek and haven't had enough of impressionism yet, grab Cowell's book for a lovely immersion into the world of Monet.

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